The Girl in the Box by Sheila Dalton
About Sheila Dalton
Sheila Dalton was born in England and came to Canada with her family at the age of six. She studied English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto. She has worked as a barmaid, an art gallery assistant, and an independent craftsperson and artist.
Sheila was a freelance writer and editor for many years before becoming an Adult Services Librarian for the Toronto Public Library. She lives in Newmarket, Ontario with her husband and two cats. She has written over ten books, including a collection of adult poetry, three children’s picture books, a literary novel, and a YA mystery which was shortlisted for a major Canadian crime writer’s award, the Arthur Ellis.
About The Girl in the Box
Caitlin Shaughnessy, a Canadian journalist, discovers that Inez, a traumatized young Mayan woman originally from Guatemala, has killed Caitlin’s psychoanalyst partner, Dr. Jerry Simpson. Simpson brought the girl, who may be autistic, back to Canada as an act of mercy and to attempt to treat her obvious trauma. Cailin desperately needs to find out why this terrible incident occurred so she can find the strength to forgive and move on with her life.
Inez, whose sense of wonder and innocence touches all who meet her, becomes a focal point for many of the Canadians who encounter her. As Caitlin struggles to uncover the truth about Inez’s relationship with Jerry, Inez struggles to break free of the projections of others. Each must confront her own anger and despair. The doctors in the north have an iciness that matches their surroundings, a kind of clinical armour that Caitlin must penetrate if she is to reach Inez.
The Girl in the Box is a psychological drama of the highest order and a gripping tale of intrigue and passion.
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Read an Excerpt
Guatemala, Feb., 1983The smell was thick as sludge, and rancid. It forced an intake of breath when Jerry wanted to pinch his nostrils shut and run out of the hut.
He struggled to ignore it, but the stench dropped into his throat and lodged there. When he tried to swallow, he coughed instead.
“Agua?” He turned to the Mayan behind him. “Por favor?”
The man nodded while continuing to talk to his wife.
Jerry leaned into his arms into on the rough-hewn table and stared at the crucifixes on the wall.
There were five hand-carved wooden Messiahs in front of him, each more lurid than the last. One strained so far outwards from his cross that Jerry thought he looked like he could tear himself off and change religious history. Painted blood ran from the hands, feet and sides of all five, and hung in gobs from a number of wounded knees. It cascaded over one Christ’s body in vermilion stripes, ending in a single dangling blob at the bottom of the cross.
The murmur behind Jerry grew louder. He swiveled around. The couple dropped their eyes and lowered their voices simultaneously, as though performing a duet.
“Agua?” he pleaded, a hand to his throat.
“Si, Senor.” This time, the man shooed his wife behind a ragged curtain, then followed her out of sight.
Jerry concentrated on the pictures hanging on the wall, in front of him. There were colourful renditions of what he thought must be Mayan deities, interspersed with rumpled copies of paintings of Catholic saints. An abundance of spiritualities, where he himself had none.
He frowned at the uplifted eyes and sweet secretive smiles of the saints. Multicoloured woolen frames bordered each blissful face — —red, orange, bright yellow, the kind of blues and greens that oceans radiate and skies sometimes faintly reflect – —colours out of a child’s fantasy, woven together with tufts and tassels and thick, knotted fringes that infused the pictures with the kind of robust good cheer he’d come to admire in Latin Americans themselves.
His spirits lifted. But there was that unhealthy smell, and a filthy blanket hanging heavily over the doorway, blocking air and light.
He’d met the couple while riding the bus to the village of Panajachel, on the way back from the market in Chichicastenanga.
Baskets were everywhere, and lunches wrapped in banana leaves, redolent with spices. Chickens clucked on the seats beside their owners on the seats. The women’s feet were bare and dusty, the ribbons in their thick braids vibrant against the dark coils of their hair.
As Jerry admired both ribbons and braids, the woman in the seat directly across the aisle from Jerry him leaned forward and vomited in a thin stream onto the floor, then moaned and nestled back against her male companion.
The macho drivers and the hair-raising roads made travel sickness so common here that no one except Jerry reacted seemed perturbed. He sat forward in his seat, frowning at the ashen grey of the woman’s face alarming, a stark contrast to her blue, red and orange huipil, and the vivid rebozo clutched tightly to her mouth.
She groaned again, loudly, and Jerry’s frown deepened. The man who, despite his healthy brown face, looked dull and pedestrian beside her in his faded T-shirt and polyester pants tied with string, pressed a hand to her forehead.
Jerry leaned across the narrow aisle, and spoke haltingly. — “The Senora is … ill? Sick?
“Yo soy … doctor,” he added when he saw the fear in the couple’s eyes. He hoped to reassure them; his Spanish was limited, and it was the best he could do. “From Canada. Don’t be afraid.”
He addressed the woman, punctuating his speech with hand gestures and smiles. “Do you have stomach pain? A headache? Where do you hurt?”
It was the husband who answered in a thin, uncertain voice, “No es nada, no es nada.”
Meanwhile, his wife fell silent and struggled to sit upright. She looked at Jerry through narrowed eyes, then turned to her husband and said something urgently to her husband, in a language Jerry assumed was Mayan.
The man replied in a rapid burst, shaking his head vigorously. She countered with something short and sharp that made him look down at his broad, dusty hands, still shaking his head, but more gently.
Again, the woman spoke to him. Jerry heard the word Canada but could understand nothing else. The man set his lips, frowning, then said to Jerry, “Canada…?”
Jerry nodded. “Si. From Canada.” He pointed to the maple leaf on his backpack.
The man frowned, obviously wrestling with the language. “You please…come to my home?” His forehead knotted.
Taken aback, Jerry stumbled for an answer. “I …ah …well, I don’t know …”
“Por favor.” The voice was now pleading. Both he the man and his wife were gazing fixedly at Jerry.
“For your wife?” Jerry said. “You need a local doctor. I’m not a … doctor for the body. I help with people’s … minds.” He tapped his forehead.
The man blinked, and said, “For … mind?” touching his own head.
“Si,” said Jerry.
The man’s face came alive. “We like … you … visit. You. Come. Visit?” He was pointing back and forth, to himself, to Jerry, agitated, eager.
Just for a visit? Jerry had found the Maya gracious and a little shy outside their marketplaces, but he was not convinced the “visit” would be other than a hard sell, or even something more sinister. The country was at war with itself, had been for decades. Being from Canada was a plus, he knew, better than being American in the eyes of the Indians, but even so …. What had excited the man about him being a “mind doctor”? Had he misunderstood?
Likely he’d interpreted Jerry’s words and gestures as meaning he could help with headaches, or head pain? Jerry wished he could tell him the man he’d said “doctor” only because his Spanish was bad and it seemed a way to offer reassurance.
He didn’t want to spurn their hospitality, though, if, in fact, that’s what it was. His Guatemalan friend Jacinta, who was half-Mayan, had told him it was an honour for a gringo to be a guest in a traditional Mayan home. He was due back in Toronto in less than a week, and had spent his time, apart from these trips on the local buses, at the usual tourist haunts, where the indigenous people were like props, or background music, he thought. Hospitality to a gringo in these troubled times was rare.
The irony of it. He wants my help as a doctor, when I came here hoping to learn from a Guatemalan shaman. A tour he’d hoped to take, on which he would meet shamans and be introduced to some of the psychotropic plants they used, had fallen through because of the political situation. His friend Jacinta knew an H’men, but told him it was impossible to arrange a meeting, even for a Canadian doctor, in the current climate.
He nodded curtly. “Yes. Gracias,” he said. “Is it far?”
“No far,” the man replied quickly, but his downward glance gave his words the lie, and again Jerry wondered what he was in for, and why.
They travelled for a while in silence, Jerry gazing absently out the back window at the stinking, grey scarf of diesel fumes trailing behind the bus.
Just outside Panajachel, the Mayan man waved his hands in the air excitedly and pointed to the front of the vehicle. Understanding they had arrived at their stop, Jerry gathered his things and followed the couple off the bus.
White, red, pink and blue houses reminded Jerry of the pastel candy hearts kids gave out on Valentine’s Day back home. Tiles of reddish-brown clay pipe curved on the rooftops, and fences of corrugated scrap metal divided one tiny yard from another.
The man pointed towards them, and Jerry assumed that was where the couple lived, “no far” after all.
But the man walked past the crowded dwellings, into the trees beyond.
Here it was all fat, leathery leaves, spiralling vines, and densely packed trees in a blind climb for the light. You couldn’t see the sky. The air glowed green through the foliage. Jerry tasted sweat on his lips, and swatted at the insects blurring his vision.
After about half an hour, the trees began to thin. Jerry followed the couple down a sharp incline, crackling through the dry underbrush, before heading up another steep slope, crowned again by trees.
The man glanced at Jerry’s weary face. “No far,” he said anxiously.
Jerry forced a smile, and kept walking. If the man’s sick wife could do it, so could he, he thought, though his stomach hurt as well as his head. So far, he had escaped an attack of turista, and he rather desperately hoped his luck wasn’t about to give out.
There were only small, scrubby bushes around them now, no trees. The brilliant sky was patterned with clouds, and he squinted up at them, grateful they were thick enough to join forces occasionally with the tangled trees to block the worst of the midday sun.
After a climb that made his legs ache and his heart thump in his chest, they reached the top of the hill, and, over the rise, was a house. Or at least, a dwelling — —patchwork walls, a doorway covered in a length of greasy-looking cloth, and a roof of what looked like warped bark, but was more likely corrugated cardboard.
These people have nothing at all. Jerry looked around him, rubbing his forehead hard with his thumb. Nothing.
Close to the hut’s doorway, a large wooden cross wrapped in a ratty swatch of lace leaned sideways at a rakish angle.
To the left of the cross lay a small vegetable patch, staked with tree branches, guarded by a tattered scarecrow made of potato sacks and old plastic bags. An assortment of squash sat in a broken basket nearby. Produce from the garden?
The air bore heavily down, and sweat rolled into the corners of Jerry’s eyes. The silence, punctuated only by the warm hum of insects, the static whir of their wings, began its own buzz inside his aching head.
“Home?” he said to the man beside him, his throat thick.
Jerry managed a sickly smile, then looked away.
The woman pulled aside the stained curtain, and ushered them inside.
And now, here in their small dark house, with his head pulsing, and the gory crucifixes seeming to throb in sympathy, he wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve and nervously licked his lips. Eerie thoughts took up lodging in his head. He thought suddenly of Caitlin, his longtime lover. If anything happened here, if he could not get away, she would sound the alarm. But he wasn’t due back for days yet, and besides, what good would it do?
The back of his throat tasted of salt. His stomach lurched. He put his face in his hands for a moment, and when he looked up, they were standing across from him, their shoulders touching, staring. The man’s eyes looked like they could ignite wood, Jerry thought; the woman’s were fearful.
She held a chipped cup out to him. It felt warm in his cradled hands; inside he saw a yellowish liquid. Tea? He drank greedily, emptying the cup before registering the mouldy aftertaste.
“We lose cinco … five … children, Senor.”
Jerry jerked his head up and gripped the mug more tightly.
The man was explaining something in an awkward blend of English, Spanish and what had to be his own dialect. Jerry couldn’t understand a word, until the man repeated in a soft voice, “We lose cinco children.”
Desperation was a fourth presence in the room now. Jerry looked at the woman with pity. She seemed too young to have so many children … The heat and darkness and smell …
“We have still one child.” The man clasped and unclasped his fingers, lowered his eyes. “Inez.” His lips trembled. When he looked up, he directed his gaze towards his wife, as if seeking her permission to go on.
She nodded almost imperceptibly, her own eyes furtive. When her husband began speaking again, she held a hand to her forehead.
“She ill, very ill,” the man was saying, and for a moment Jerry was confused. He thought the man was referring to his wife.
“Please. Come. Look at her. Por favor.”
“Of course. Though, you understand, I am not a –—”
The man shifted his feet and stammered, “Is no our fault…”
Jerry froze. That phrase or ones like it — —he’d heard them so many times on the Emergency wards — —”It’s not our fault.” “We didn’t mean to hurt him.” “She fell.”
Automatically, he murmured a soothing, “No, no, of course not,” all the while thinking, Oh God, have they done something awful to this child?
“Can you take me to her?” he said, swallowing to dislodge the unpleasant taste in his mouth. He pulled his thoughts together. This isn’t Canada, he cautioned himself. They’ve lost their children to disease or famine, not abuse, and they wouldn’t be so concerned about this girl if they didn’t love her.
“Si.” The man steadied himself for a moment against the table. “Come,” he said, and headed out the door. His wife followed him through the entranceway, with Jerry close behind.
They led him in the direction of a small stand of trees beyond the market garden.
As they approached, scrabbling noises and low moaning, almost a mooing sound, made Jerry’s chest constrict.
A little farther into the trees sat a box.
A patchwork wooden rectangle, about Jerry’s height, about three-quarters that in width. No windows. Jerry thought of shipping crates, of luggage trunks, and shuddered. The door was tied shut with a length of rusted chain and a metal padlock. Oh, God , no. He licked his top lip, drew in a slow breath, hoping to quiet the beating of his heart, now loud enough to interfere with his hearing.
The thumping from the hut was interspersed with grunts. He shut his eyes as the man fiddled with the lock. When he opened them, the door, too, was open.
What Reviewers Are Saying
When psychoanalyst Jerry Simpson rescues a young girl from an abusive existence and takes her home with him to Canada it soon becomes apparent that the girl is suffering from more than trauma. She is mute, locked in an autistic world that Jerry and his colleagues find impossible to infiltrate. They quickly stop seeing her as a fascinating case study and fall beneath the spell of her child like innocence. But when Inez is found leaning over Jerry Simpson’s dead body and is accused of his murder, Jerry’s partner, Caitlin, is motivated to discover not who killed him but why he was killed. Caitlin is forced to confront and overcome uncomfortable suspicion, damaged trust and inner emotional conflict to penetrate Inez’ psyche to discover why her lover died.
When I began to read this book I had no idea what to expect. It is not my genre of choice and I am unfamiliar with both the setting and the psychological problems that Inez suffers. As a consequence it was a real adventure for me; a journey into a world that I soon found totally absorbing and it was immediately apparent that I was in very capable hands.
The Girl in the Box is an intelligent read. I don’t usually enjoy flashbacks but here they serve to illustrate the perplexed state of Caitlin’s mind. Sheila Dalton’s characters are fascinatingly complex and interact so naturally that you forget you are reading a book at all. The narrative is beautiful, her descriptions delicately evocative yet she never shies away from the truth of any situation. The violence is harsh, the love making sensuous and at times the narrative is uncompromising but what makes it wonderful for me is the way Sheila reveals Caitlin and Inez’s inner trauma. Their pain is understated, the scenes lightly but powerfully written providing total credibility and heightening the stunning impact of the final chapters.
I highly recommend this book whether you enjoy psychological drama or not. The characters linger long after the turn of the final page. Like people that you have met once and may never meet again, you worry about them and wonder how they are. This is not a book that you will want to give away, put it on your book shelf and read it again and again.
~Judith Arnopp, Author
A confusing timeline doesn’t detract seriously from this solid mystery where the killer of psychoanalyst Jerry Simpson is known from page one. It was the eponymous “girl in a box” whom Jerry brought back to his Ontario home from Guatemala; the mute Inez whom he most surely rescued from, at worst, certain death and, at least, imprisonment. But the knowing isn’t enough for Jerry’s longtime girlfriend, Caitlin. Accepting that the feral Inez did the murder and that she’s serving time in a mental institution doesn’t do much to resolve Caitlin’s gnawing need to know more. In a series of deftly handled flashes between 1988, the time of Jerry’s death, and when the pair met in Guatemala in 1978, Caitlin obsessively rehashes every detail of their relationship and what she knows of his efforts to save Inez. Even after disjointed pieces of information begin to assemble the picture is still a broken mirror until Caitlin decides to visit Inez. She hopes to give Inez words to finally reveal the whole truth of what happened that day in Jerry’s home office. This novel is a tidy package that successfully juggles themes involving relationships, commitment, professional jealousy and helplessness in the face of international issues.
–ABNA Publishers Weekly Review, 2009